(RNS) — What are you giving up for Lent?
If you're a practicing Christian — and likely if you're not — you're familiar with the exhortation to give up something for the traditional season of penitence, which starts Wednesday (March 6) for Catholics and many Protestants and March 11 for Eastern Christians. The season commemorates the period leading up to Christ's passion and resurrection, and for the approximately 1 in 4 Americans who observe it, Lent has been a time of sacrifice, prayer, fasting and reflection.
But, increasingly, the popular concept of Lent has been transformed into a kind of vaguely theistic detox. It's a chance not to give up earthly pleasures but to exorcise toxins.
An article published last year in U.K. tabloid The Express, by way of example, provides readers with a handy listicle of the health benefits of giving up some of the most popular fasting targets, such as smoking or chocolate, before reminding them of the upsides of giving up sex. "Abstaining over Lent might help you reconnect with your partner in other ways,” the article reads, before adding: “However, you might be tempted to break this when you hear how many calories sex burns.”
Modern Lent has come to have more in common with Dry January – the viral sensation encouraging New Year's resolvers to give up alcohol for a month – than with its ecclesiastic antecedents.
No wonder that it's not just the faithful who are getting in on the Lenten action. A 2014 Barna study found that American millennials, famously less likely to be religious than their elders, were nonetheless more likely than the average American to fast for Lent. And though hard numbers are difficult to find, abundant anecdotal evidence supports the idea that a solid minority of those who observe Lent belong to the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated.
A few years ago, Monica Potts wrote in "The Case for Secular Lent," on Talking Points Memo, “I know tons of people who aren’t observant Christians but who nevertheless participate in some kind of targeted fast for the religious holiday meant to evoke Jesus’s 40 days and nights wandering through the wilderness."
Potts, an avowedly “nonreligious” person, argues that her own regular Lenten observance is a vital part of her meditative practice. “We all need a time and space for quiet reflection,” she writes, “to consider what connects us, and to wish each other well. From 'peace be with you' to 'namaste,' there’s a universal desire to pull ourselves out of the everyday and set our intentions for a better life.” Lent, she wrote, is “a way to consider what gave me real pleasure.”
But is reflection all Lent is about? What does it mean to divorce the personal benefits of Lenten observance – even the spiritually attuned goals of increased mindfulness, a better life – from their divine referent? If we are not fasting to love God, but rather to optimize our own existence, are we not risking transforming a season of penitence into one of glorified diet culture?
In his 1978 book "Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth," Quaker theologian Richard J. Foster quotes a long-term practitioner of a particular Lenten fast who sees the discipline as necessary for a kind of surrender to God's will, rather than a triumph of self-control.
“For the first time I was using the (fast) day to find God's will for my life," the person tells Foster. "Began to think about what it meant to surrender one's life.” Foster's anonymous Christian isn't trying to exert willpower, but to explore what "will" really means in a world subject to God. This practitioner is precisely trying to focus less on the self, not more.
In giving up chocolate, say, or alcohol or sex (or even my planned abstention: social media), we're not necessarily focusing on self-denial so much as self-improvement. We're stealth-dieting, giving ourselves another opportunity to be better (and, if we're thinner, fresher-faced and more productive to boot, then so be it).
While Lent is by no means as secularized as, say, Christmas or Easter, it's worth thinking about the way in which the Lenten season has increasingly become, as Giles Fraser, the journalist and priest in the Church of England, put it in a 2014 article for The Guardian, "a second go at the new year resolutions that ran into the sand somewhere in mid-January.”
Are we using a season designed for contemplation of the holy to alleviate our own insecurities about our bodies, our work ethic, our personal health? And if so, is it time, as we've done with Christmas, to take stock of what the “true meaning” of Lent really is?